Derrick Bell: Losing a Champion for Equality

The famed law professor was a great teacher, mentor and friend, says a former Harvard Law colleague.


It was with great sadness that I received the news that my mentor, teacher and dear friend professor Derrick A. Bell Jr. passed away in New York on Oct. 5 after a long illness. He was 80 years old.

I had the honor and privilege of being one of Bell’s students when he taught at Harvard Law School during the 1970s. He took me, and the small cohort of other students of color who were there, under his wing and became a beloved figure whom we admired, trusted and turned to repeatedly for guidance and support.

I remained close friends with Bell for more than 35 years. Today I mourn his death as a deeply painful and personal loss, as well as a loss to the cause of racial equality and to the thousands whom he inspired and mentored.

Early on in his career, Bell distinguished himself as a staff attorney for the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Justice Department. He relinquished the position after two years over pressure to give up his membership in the NAACP. As counsel to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, under the tutelage of Thurgood Marshall, Bell administered 300 desegregation cases involving schools and restaurant chains in the South between 1960 and 1966.

Later, for more than 40 years, Bell was a distinguished teacher and scholar who influenced the lives and careers of law students at the University of Southern California; Harvard Law School, where he was the first black tenured professor; the University of Oregon Law School; and, for the past 20 years, New York University Law School.

He pioneered a new field of critical race theory and legal scholarship when he was asked to write a foreword for a very prestigious annual article for the Harvard Law Review, focusing on civil rights, race, gender and equality. The article was supported by then Harvard Law Review President and now Harvard Law professor Carol Steiker, as well as by then Supervisory Editor and now Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan.